March 9, 2016 | By

Growing Food for Growing Cities: Urbanization as an Opportunity for Many Small-Scale Farmers

On March 2, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched a new campaign, “Growing Food for Growing Cities,” to explore the challenges posed to global food security by urbanization and the opportunities it creates for small-scale farmers to connect with burgeoning urban markets. We will publish one blog post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2016. Look for a new post each Wednesday, join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the Symposium live stream on April 26.

As cities grow and incomes rise, particularly in developing countries, urban diets are evolving. Expanding cities are consuming immense volumes of food, and with more money to spend, urban dwellers are buying higher-value and more nutritious items—more meat, dairy, and processed foods, and fewer staple grains like maize or wheat. These consumption changes are restructuring the way that food is delivered to cities. New market opportunities prompt multi-national food companies and retailers to invest in developing countries, resulting in the globalization of food industry and the expansion of supermarkets. Urban consumers are buying food from newly available chain stores, and in response, wholesale markets and supermarket chains are moving huge quantities of food every day.

However, for all the opportunities created by urbanization, new urban areas place a large demand on the food system—by 2050, global food production must double to satisfy a growing and predominantly urban population. While innovations in urban or vertical farms have a niche role to play, the overwhelming majority of this food will be sourced domestically from rural areas. As such, growing urban markets offer a significant new economic opportunity for farmers. With access to cities, small-scale farmers can expand production to higher value products, such as dairy and vegetables, and earn greater incomes as a result.

Small-Scale Farmers Can Feed the Future

Contrary to popular belief, imports do not supply the majority of food to developing urban centers. In fact, while imports make up a small and significant share of urban food supply, domestic food production typically provides up to 80 percent of the food supply in developing countries. It stands to reason that investment to improve the productivity of domestic, small-scale agriculture remains the most sensible path forward to feed cities. Such investment is both the most near-term and effective means of meeting the evolving food demand from new urban areas, given domestic production already supplies the vast majority of food. It’s also the smartest strategy for addressing the root causes of rural poverty.

The pressure to meet urban food demand will be palpable in the coming decades, even among small-scale farmers. Their preparedness and ability to respond to this challenge will determine the intensity of their benefit.

Harnessing Farmer Potential with Improved Market Access, Efficiency, and Gender Equality

The potential of small-scale farming to feed growing cities will only be reached if farmers have the tools they need to access and supply urban markets. To increase production output amidst resource constraints and a changing climate, small farmers will need to improve efficiency. They need better access to basic inputs like water, secure land tenure, and credit in addition to the technological advancements that have modernized farming in the developed world: appropriately adapted seeds and fertilizer, for example, and the training and education to use them. Farmer business skills and negotiation training can also help them interact more successfully with all types of private sector actors, from small traders to big agribusiness. Secure and stable private sector relationships can increase farmer access to services, increase resilience and financial sustainability, and create incentives to continue improving productivity year on year. Access to roads is also a major barrier to reaching better markets, but given the rapid expansion of cities and provincial towns and the concerted efforts of many development organizations, road access will hopefully improve dramatically over the coming decades. 

Female empowerment is also a critical intervention necessary to improve small-scale production. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women provide the majority of labor on small farms. Rural women are the primary producers of the world’s staple crops and of legumes and vegetables, which provide essential nutrients. However, female farmers are 13-25 percent less productive than their male counterparts, due to discrimination and cultural norms that make it difficult for women to hire and manage labor, join farmer groups, own land, and access production inputs or market information. Women are also less able than men to devote adequate time to agricultural activities due to their childcare responsibilities.

View full-size infographic

Investment in female productivity is crucial to satisfying urban food demand, and to ensuring the overall food security of rural areas. Not only are women a major force behind agricultural production, but they also spend a larger share of their incomes on family nutrition, education, and healthcare. As such, by closing the agricultural productivity gap, agricultural production in lower-income countries could increase by as much as 4 percent, and reduce undernourishment by more than 15 percent.

Including Small Farmers in Food Systems’ Growth

Urbanization represents an enormous opportunity for small-scale farmers to expand their production and generate a sufficient livelihood. However, if the farmers of the developing world are not included in the growth of urban markets, they risk marginalization and poverty as the global food system expands around them. Farmers, and particularly women farmers, need the tools to access urban markets and meet urban demand. Through concerted investment and policy coordination to promote small-scale producers, this access is achievable—along with the effective nourishment of growing cities and dramatic improvements in rural livelihoods.

Read previous posts in the “Growing Food for Growing Cities” blog series:

Food Security in an Urbanizing World


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.